Brian Clough changed Ian Woan’s life. The former left-winger is quite open about that. Before signing for Nottingham Forest in 1990, Woan was working for an industrial company in Widnes. It is fair to say that moving from non-league Runcorn to Forest – then second in the First Division – to work under one of the most famous managers the game has seen, was quite the jolt.
Nine professional games later, Woan was shaking the hand of Lady Diana and playing in an FA Cup final against Spurs.
The move to Forest has shaped Woan’s life. Not just in footballing terms – Woan spent a decade at the City Ground, where he is now revered – but also in the relationships and friendships from that time that endure.
Woan still lives in Nottingham and for the past nine years, he has been assistant manager at Burnley to his best mate from those early Forest days, Sean Dyche, with his other former housemate at Forest, Steve Stone, now first-team coach at the club.
Things could have been so different. “Harry Redknapp tried to sign me from Runcorn for Bournemouth,” says Woan. “I went down and shook his hand, but had to serve my two-week notice period at work. At the end of the second week I got a call from Forest, offering £225 a week for wages. I was earning more as a quantity surveyor and playing for Runcorn but it was a no brainer.”
Clough had never watched Woan play but became interested when his impending move to Bournemouth flashed up on Teletext one evening in his office. After a couple of phone calls, Woan signed for Forest the next day. It was, unsurprisingly, not the only unconventional ploy used by the two-times European Cup-winning manager.
“When I was signing my second contract at Forest I was called into Clough’s office,” says Woan. “So I went in, and he’s sat there with Frank Sinatra on. ‘Sit down, son,’ he said.
“I had been at Forest two years but never had a one-to-one with the gaffer. I sat down in silence. It was probably only 30 seconds but it seemed like an eternity, Sinatra just playing and him looking at me.
“Clough just said: ‘Do you like playing for me, son?’ I replied: ‘Yes, gaffer.’ ‘Do you want to play for me, son?’ ‘Yes, gaffer.’ ‘Do you trust me, son?’ ‘Yes, gaffer.’ ‘OK, son. Sign that.’ And he slid over the blue contract sheet, no numbers or details on it, just his signature and a space for mine.
“I’m sat there opposite him, thinking: ‘What the fuck am I going to do here?’
“His dog, Del, was there. A beautiful labrador. It was one of the most surreal situations I’ve ever been in. I had a million things going through my head, beads of sweat dripping off me. So I signed. I would have signed for nothing. If Forest wanted me to sign, I’m signing. I had an agent, by the way. He wasn’t best pleased about all that. My wages went up to about £1,000 a week.
“I bought myself a Vauxhall Astra GTE. Des Walker had a Porsche and a Jag. Pearcey [Stuart Pearce] never bothered about cars. We used to call his ‘the Ambulance’. Like a club-sponsored Volvo estate. That was him to a T.”
The stories from those years come thick and fast. Forest apprentices, including Dyche, “would often be called round to Clough’s house to do his gardening, to pick up his leaves”, Training would consist of shuttle runs and five-a-side, with Clough’s son and Forest forward Nigel often in goal. Roy Keane was known simply as “Irish”. Mark Crossley was nicknamed Norm, owing to a vague resemblance to Norman Whiteside.
“We weren’t allowed to do extra training,” says Woan. “No gym, either. Sometimes we’d have a bad result and in the dressing room afterwards, Clough would just say: ‘OK, lads. See you Thursday.’ He valued downtime and had a phobia about players getting injured, that impacted his own playing career.
“The gaffer never discussed the opposition. It was all about instilling confidence in us. His magic was finding the missing pieces of the puzzle and putting a team of misfits together. Anyone else would just see pieces in a box.
“On match days, at 2.50pm, we’d be throwing a tennis ball around, throw it to the gaffer, he’d throw it back. No music, the door would be open. He’d just point at the ball, and say to us: ‘Lads, this is your friend. Look after it.’ Archie Gemmill might be saying something in a players’ ear. ‘All the best, skipper,’ Clough would say to Pearce. And then we’d be off.”
Clough’s decline is well documented, but his departure and Forest’s relegation in 1993 presented the opportunity for a fresh start. “It all changed under Frank Clark. He brought sports science people in, strength and conditioning coaches.”
With Woan, Stone, Pearce, Lars Bohinen and a young striker called Stan Collymore, Forest flew back to the Premier League and finished third the following season behind Blackburn and Manchester United in 1995, qualifying for the Uefa Cup. Woan was instrumental in Forest making it to the quarter-finals in 1996, going out to the eventual winners, Bayern Munich.
With greater success, came more international travel, including a post-season trip to Singapore. “We were sent to play against the national side but were allowed out the night before,” Woan says. “We got absolutely smashed in these markets drinking beer out of teacups. We thought it was going to be a little run around the next day but we turned up and 50,000 people were there to watch. All the lads were hanging. The humidity was off the scale. Some of us had to come off at half-time. I’m not sure what they were expecting from an end-of-season trip.”
The good times didn’t last. When Collymore departed for Liverpool, performances and results slipped. Clark left the club in 1996-97 and Forest finished bottom. A tumultuous period followed with Dave Bassett, Ron Atkinson and David Platt as managers, with a knee injury sidelining Woan for over a year.
“Forest starting losing its identity,” he says. “The last two years I didn’t enjoy. Platt came in and we didn’t get on. He tried to bring an Italian mentality – bottles of red wine at the table at lunch – and it was too much, too soon.
“It was the year my first child was born, and I missed a few training sessions. He wanted me out and wouldn’t give me a testimonial. That was disrespectful. That’s just the way he was with me.”
Woan does not dwell on those negative moments. At 53, he is a bundle of positive energy as we talk at Burnley’s training ground. Rather than commute from Nottingham, he lives with Dyche in a nearby flat in midweek, a base for heated discussions on team selection.
“I would never talk back to him in front of other staff. Ever. But in our flat, it’s open season. You’d laugh if you came. Premier League manager, incredibly successful and all it’s got is two couches, two beds and a big-screen TV. I don’t think the cooker works.”
It sounds eerily similar to the Nottingham home Woan, Dyche and Stone shared in the early 1990s. “We had nothing in that first house. Stoney spent most of his time trying to get the 2ps out of the pay phone. Sean was always way more professional than us, but would always have MTV on. I was the landlord back then. The rules have changed these days, I know who’s boss.”